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A young and talented violinist makes a Faustian bargain in a bid for fame, money and respect in Clifford Odets’ 1937 “Golden Boy,” in a fine student production through Dec. 13 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Potiker Theatre.

Young, skinny and cross-eyed Joe Bonaparte (Luis Vega) grew up without his mother, but has been given violin lessons by his gentle Italian immigrant father, a fruit peddler. But Joe, tired of being poor, picked on and mocked, has been secretly working out at a gym.

Meanwhile, boxing promoter Tom Moody (Michael Turner), who has a fight scheduled tonight, is getting grief from girlfriend Lorna Moon (Hannah Tamminen) over Tom’s inability to get a divorce from his wife.

When Moody’s boxer breaks his hand sparring and Tom is faced with cancellation of the fight, Joe volunteers to fight in his stead. The kid wins, and that sets him on the road to fame, riches and ruin.

One of the founders of New York's Depression-era Group Theatre, Odets is most often associated with political theater in plays like “Waiting For Lefty” and “Awake And Sing!”

Though written to be a commercial success and to keep Group Theatre afloat, Odets insisted that Golden Boy was both an allegory and an anticapitalist social play. (Socialist Odets was called up before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s where, to his shame, he named names and thus escaped the career disaster of the blacklist).

Director Emilie Whelan keeps the action (performed in the round at the Potiker) taut. Her very capable cast not only convinces as actors, but helps out in making the many set changes near balletic. There are a few gender switches in the cast to allow for available talent.

Vega’s Joe is heartbreaking as he crosses the final line of breaking his hand in the ring, which eliminates music as a career choice.

Likewise Wallace, the sorrowful father who cannot bring himself to give Joe his blessing as a modern gladiator.

All the major characters are looking for something. Turner’s Moody wants a winner (and a divorce); Tamminen’s Lorna has been hurt by love to the extent that she’s almost afraid to find it again.

“Golden Boy” is one of the great plays of the Depression era. This cast and director do it proud.

The details

“Golden Boy” plays through Dec. 13 at The Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive (on the UCSD campus).

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm.

Tickets: (858) 534-4574 or at the Potiker Theatre box office.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.